The history of Pilates
The history of pilates is a relatively recent and uncomplicated one. Developed in the early twentieth century by German physical trainer Joseph Hubertus Pilates, it is a physical fitness system destined, in the words of its creator, to “give you suppleness, natural grace, and skill that will unmistakably reflected in the way you walk, in the way you play and in the way you work”.
As a child, Pilates suffered from multiple illnesses, such as asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever, a fact which prompted him to dedicate his life to the improvement of his physical strength. His father supported the son’s desire, introducing him to boxing, ju-jitsu, gymnastics, and bodybuilding.
In 1912 Pilates moved to England, where, being German, he was interned at Lancaster Castle during the First World War. Here, he taught wrestling and self-defense and also began to refine and teach his minimalistic (in terms of equipment) system of mat exercises that he later dubbed “Contrology.”
The further development of this system, in the sense of an integrated, comprehensive plan of physical exercise, was undertaken after Pilates’ transfer to another internment camp, on the Isle of Man. While studying the movements of animals and yoga, he also trained his fellow inmates in exercises and fitness, developing his method over a period of approximately four years.
Pilates’ return to Germany after the First World War was marked by the beginning of his collaboration with experts in dance and physical exercises; after a period of training police officers in Hamburg, Pilates emigrated to the United States around 1925. Together with his wife, whom he met during the sea trip to his new homeland, he founded a studio in New York City, where they taught and supervised their students directly, well into the 1960s.
Pilates’ main principle was that the mind was capable and had to be trained so as to control every muscle in the body; particular attention was given to the core postural muscles, which help keep the body upright and provide support for the spine. In relation to this, the focus was placed on the awareness of breathing and the alignment of the spine; the exercises also had the benefit to strengthen the deep torso and abdominal muscles.
The efforts of the Pilates’ family quickly bore their fruits, with renowned local dancers such as Martha Graham or George Balanchine becoming devoted trainees and even sending their own students to Pilates’ studio. Given that the exercise system built stamina, flexibility, and strength, once it became known that New York ballerinas were frequenting the gym, society women soon followed suit. In order to help spread knowledge about his method, Pilates published two books during his lifetime.
The first, entitled “Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising That Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education,” was published in 1934. The second was published in 1945, bearing the title “Return to Life Through Contrology”.
We also note that Pilates made use of several pieces of equipment, designed to facilitate and accelerate the overall process of strengthening, stretching, body aligning and buildup of core strength started by the exercises on the mat.
Each of these pieces of equipment was named “apparatus,” the best-known and most popular nowadays being the Reformer, an apt choice for a name in the process of “universally reforming the body.” Other designs originating from Pilates’ work were the Cadillac, the Wunda Chair, the High “Electric” Chair, the Spine Corrector, the Ladder Barrel and the Pedi-Pole.
His first students were the ones who went on to teach his methods, and they range from Romana Kryzanowska and Jay Grimes to Bob Seed and Lolita San Miguel. His niece, Mary Pilates, was another well-known practitioner and teacher. There are differences between modern and classical pilates, in that the first derives from the second. Traditional pilates preserves most of the work developed and taught by Joseph Pilates himself.
A number of versions of pilates are taught today, the majority based on up to nine principles. Frank Friedman and Gail Eisen, two students of Romana Kryzanowska, published the first modern book on Pilates. Titled “The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning,” it appeared in 1980 and outlined the six basic “principles of Pilates.” From that time, these basic principles have been adopted and changed by a wider community. The original six principles were concentration, control, center, flow, precision, and breathing.
Concentration stipulates that the way the exercises are done is more important than the exercises themselves. Control is based on controlling one’s muscles while centering refers to the muscles in the center of the body as the focal starting point. Flow focuses on achieving a seamless transition between exercises, once the trainee has refined his precision. Finally, the last key principle, breathing, emphasizes the importance of adequately inhaling and exhaling deeply so as to ensure that the body is cleaned.
When practicing pilates, the practitioner breathes out with the effort and in on the return. Pilates himself described the technique of breathing during exercise as squeezing the lungs as if one would wring a wet towel dry.
Despite the fact that it’s an unregulated method of exercise, in October 2000 “Pilates” was ruled a generic term by a U.S. federal court, making it free for unrestricted use. As a result of the court ruling, the Pilates Method Alliance was soon formed as a professional association for the Pilates community.
Its declared purpose was to provide the foundation of an international organization meant to connect teachers, teacher trainers, studios, and facilities dedicated to preserving and enhancing the legacy of Joseph H. Pilates and his exercise method by establishing standards, encouraging unity, and promoting professionalism. If you’re young and you wish to find out more about pilates, we encourage you, in turn, to start with an animated history of pilates, which provides more fun while teaching you about it, at the same time.